As Bill Maggs slides behind the wheel of his Audi S4, his Palm is at work answering the critical question of the morning: Route 280 or 101? The PDA's wireless Etak Traffic Touch function surveys competing routes from his San Francisco home to his Silicon Valley office and beams down constantly updated reports on which one is less clogged. En route, Maggs is a flurry of wireless connectivity. He chats on his Motorola cell phone and answers e-mail on his Internet-enabled Palm. If he likes a song he hears on the radio, he can order it on Amazon with a few taps of his stylus. And if he decides he'll stop off at an Internet start-up in San Francisco's SoMa (South of Market) district, he doesn't need a map. His car, equipped with a global-positioning-system (GPS) receiver on its dashboard, gives him spoken, block-by-block directions.
Maggs, 37, is admittedly a bit of a geek. He's chief technology officer at Palm, Inc. But the amazing thing is that the hyperwireless Maggs isn't that many months ahead of the rest of us. Experts have been saying for years that one day we'll all be checking e-mail and placing buy orders on Intel while we lie on the beach--or drive down California's busy Route 101. And with a new generation of smart cellular phones and sophisticated wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) flooding the stores this summer, each offering a dazzling array of new services, the wireless revolution has finally arrived. In this revolution, blood won't be running in the streets (if we keep our eyes on the road!), but applications like instant messaging and e-trades will be.
How big is wireless? Just ask Wall Street. Companies seen as harnessing its power have soared to astronomical valuations. Qualcomm, a leader in the digital wireless space, has watched its stock soar nearly 3000% in little more than a year. Finnish cell-phone maker Nokia, which was floundering in the early 1990s, has ridden the wireless juggernaut to become the eighth most valuable company on the planet (see accompanying story). Palm Inc. and AT&T's wireless tracking stocks were two of the most anticipated IPOs this year.
While this investment frenzy has chilled a little of late, what has driven it is a simple realization: we're on the brink of a major technosocial upheaval that's right up there with the steam engine, car, TV and computer. It promises the ultimate technological breakthrough for the information age. Virtually all information will be available to you at all times, whether you're taking a day off from work, visiting the in-laws or traveling to Fiji. With the importance of physical location diminished, even irrelevant, you'll be able to answer an e-mail from your boss, shift your 401(k) or sing your child a video-and-sound lullaby wherever you are.
The implications are so sweeping that they have smart people talking in ways that seem to be ripped from the pages of Isaac Asimov. Sun Microsystems' chief scientist, Bill Joy, recently said that in the future, virtually all inanimate objects--from front doors to light bulbs--will have a wireless Internet hookup. What does that mean for you? One day, when your dishwasher breaks down, the appliance will alert you via your cell phone or PDA. It may even call the repairman.